Good policy and good intentions won't stop big wildfires

  • Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Specialist Program Manager Bill Armstrong in an area affected by the Las Conchas Fire.

    Eric Swanson
  • A Kings River Hotshots' Division T firefighter takes a break during a night burn operation conducted during New Mexico's 2011 Las Conchas Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • A tree torching in Arizona's 2011 Wallow Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • Regrowth peeks through the ashes of the Las Conchas Fire in late September.

    Eric Swanson
  • A member of the Kings River Hotshots' Division T performs a night burn operation during the Las Conchas Fire

    Kari Greer
  • An abundance of regrowth in Rocky Mountain National Park shows how fire can benefit a forested area.

    Scott Sticha, National Park Service
  • By the time New Mexico's Las Conchas Fire was contained in early August, it had burned more than 156,000 acres, including this area near Dixon's Apple Orchard at the mouth of Cochiti Canyon.

    Kari Greer

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In 1995, the Agriculture and Interior departments -- the ultimate landlords of the West's federal forests -- came out with the much-heralded Federal Fire Policy. "Catastrophic wildfire now threatens millions of wildland acres," it stated. "Serious and potentially permanent ecological deterioration is possible where fuel loads exceed historical conditions." Restoration of wildland fire became a national priority, second only to safety on the firelines.

Six years later, the Federal Fire Policy was updated. Fire hazards had only become worse, it noted: "Conditions on millions of acres of wildland increase the probability of large, intense fires beyond any scale yet witnessed." The National Fire Plan was developed to reduce fuels buildup. Then came the controversial 2002 Healthy Forests Initiative, which emphasized thinning and logging to reduce fire danger. The following year, the Bush administration required that every wildland fire had to be managed as either a "good" fire (allowed to burn for resource benefits) or a "bad" one (suppressed on all fronts).

Fire managers criticized that lack of flexibility, and in 2009, under Obama, a new policy offered more options for handling wildfires, including the ability to manage a fire for multiple objectives that can change as the fire's path changes. Now, a wildfire can burn unchecked in a remote rocky area, even as it is corralled on another front threatening a town. "(The agency) can save a huge amount of money with this more rational, science-based approach instead of a war model. It's a sea change," says Rich Fairbanks, a former Forest Service wildfire expert who now works on fire policy for The Wilderness Society.

Also in 2009, Congress and the Obama administration passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, which reformed fire-management funding. It created a pair of reserve funds that help cover the costs of large or complex fires, reducing the need for the agencies to siphon money away from other vital programs and services, like maintenance and trail-building.

Other progressive policy changes are in the works. In February 2011, the Forest Service released a draft Forest Planning Rule that will be finalized later this year. For the first time ever, the plans for managing each national forest and grassland "must take wildland fire into account as a component of a healthy ecosystem." The new Cohesive Fire Management Strategy, requested by Congress, outlines an approach that considers all types of land (federal, state, tribal, private) and communities; the coordination is meant to strengthen wildfire management and reduce costs.

These policies reinforce a primary goal: restoring ecosystem health. That includes reducing fuel buildup so that fire can be returned safely to the forests and forests can recover more quickly after a burn. Applying mechanical treatments first, such as cutting down smaller trees, piling and burning slash, and using machinery to chop up trees and brush, can reduce the severity of later fires and make follow-up prescribed burns easier to control.

Annually, the Forest Service uses prescribed burns on nearly two-and-a-half times as much acreage as the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service combined; it mechanically treats roughly three times as many acres as its fellow agencies. But it's still not enough. The agency treated 3 million acres in 2010 with thinning or prescribed burns, says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, "but I'd feel a lot better if we were treating 4 or 5 million acres per year." Most experts think the agency is treating just one-quarter the number of acres each year that it needs to. And such treatment is never a one-shot remedy, because brush and trees regrow (see table, page 13).

To get the most bang for the buck, treatments should be planned strategically so that future fires "don't have a lot of room to roam before they whack into a treatment," says Mark Finney, with the agency's Forest Fire, Fuel and Smoke Science Program in Missoula, Mont. Finney suggests that for a significant effect on fire spread, 10 to 20 percent of the landscape should be in a treated condition at any given time. In most of the West, he says, only about 1 percent is in such condition.

That's because most forest treatments are "postage-stamp" efforts that barely make a dent in the West's 277 million fire-prone acres of public lands. "These challenges cannot be addressed by thinking and acting at small scales. That's been one of the vain hopes of forest management for a couple of decades now -- that small targeted treatments would somehow have a cumulative effect at landscape scales," says Don Falk, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona. "Landscape-scale approaches are critical -- and possible."

The Forest Service and other agencies are moving in that direction, says Chief Tidwell. Next year's budget includes $854 million for ecosystem restoration work, such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, created in 2009, which is focusing resources on 10 initial projects to improve the health of large swaths of forest. One of these projects, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, aims to thin up to 50,000 acres annually over two decades to help bring back low-severity fire; the Southwest Jemez Mountains project in New Mexico will reduce fuels across 210,000 acres. These new efforts complement ongoing Forest Service efforts such as Arizona's White Mountain Stewardship project, a 10-year contract targeting 150,000 acres of small ponderosa pines near mountain communities. Such large-scale, long-term projects also make it easier to find commercial markets for the wood removed, key to controlling costs.

Still, it's impossible to thin or burn every overgrown acre; wildfire will continue to "treat" many more acres than humans ever can. "Forests will always be managed by fire," says Finney.